ABU DHABI // Teenagers increasingly are experiencing suicidal thoughts because of poor body image, a result of greater exposure to international media, experts said yesterday.
During a conference held in the capital and attended by members of the health, education and police sectors, officials agreed that eating disorders, learning disabilities and study pressure are the main factors behind suicidal intentions for young people.
At the same time, depression and stressful professions remain high factors for society in general.
Solving these issues is complicated by a shortage of psychologists and a lack of insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment.
Vivienne Sullivan, a nurse at the American Community School, said she and the four counsellors at the school see a lot of suicidal pupils. "Mainly young girls try to commit suicide but do not succeed," she said. "One of the biggest problems is eating disorders; worrying about getting fat, not eating in front of boys or in public."
"Being thin is everything," Ms Sullivan added. "They are worried about being teased if they have a healthy weight."
While the majority of troubled teenagers are between 12 and 15, Ms Sullivan said there is no single nationality that stood out, and that Emiratis and westerners alike were affected.
"Models and all the media are getting to all teenagers. They all have access to TV and the internet."
Ms Sullivan said students who revealed previous suicide attempts had mainly used pills.
Another trigger, among both genders, is study pressure. A 15-year-old Asian boy jumped from a school building about four years ago. He died three days after the incident, which was reported as an accident, rather than a suicide attempt.
Razan Nabulsi, a special needs educational consultant, said many of the cases she received were children with reading problems.
"There was one 9-year-old boy from New Zealand who told his mother he wants to lie down on the train railway so the train will run over him," Ms Mabulsi said. "His mother came to us crying."
A recent study showed that 25 per cent of pupils in the GCC have a learning disability.
According to Dr Padma Varrey, a consultant psychiatrist at the New Medical Center, the majority of people who kill themselves in the UAE are Indian citizens. Statistics from 2010 said 110 Indians committed suicide that year, compared with 54 so far this year. Although the Indian embassy has set up a 24-hour hotline, 800 INDIA, that deals with marital, mental and monetary problems, there is no official suicide hotline in the UAE.
School nurses and medical officials said that when they encounter a suicidal person they do not know what to do. The federal mental health law, which was established in 1982, carries a six-month prison sentence and Dh5,000 fine for those who make attempts.
The law could change soon. Mental health professionals have been working since 2007 with the Ministry of Health to present a new law to the Federal National Council, and are expected to do so in a few weeks.
"The new law does not have any fines or prison sentences," said Dr Yousef Abou Allaban, of the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology, which organised the event. "The law should ensure the rights of the patient 95 per cent."
Currently the law does not clarify what doctors should do with suicidal patients.
"We treat them with fear, because we can be held responsible. And if we told the patient to go to the hospital they would fear jail and if we turn them down we are trading with human life," Dr Abou Allaban said.
Another problem is the lack of psychological help available in the Emirates. There are only 15 licensed psychologists in Abu Dhabi, while the population of the emirate requires 400.
Dr Abou Allaban blamed the strict and complex licensing procedures at the Ministry of Health for that deficiency.
"People who set these requirements have no idea about psychiatry or about the demand."
Also the law that controls the use of antidepressants, which among GCC countries only exists in the UAE and Kuwait, is wrong, because it adds to the stigma of using medication, he said.
"Antidepressants will never be addictive. And there is no study to prove that taking antidepressants leads to suicide."
However, he said, some people might think of suicide during the first one or two weeks of taking them, "until the medicine kicks in".